A Country of Eternal Light by Paul Dalgarno is a hard book to review. It’s amazingly written. The concept is very clever and Dalgarno’s prose switch from a fairly chatty and mundane narrative to something more confronting… jolting readers out of our comfort zone and reminding us that the narrator is (in fact) dead.
I’m not vain. Or I am, but I don’t want to be, because vanity working on a weak head produces mischief and inadvertantly leads to familial catastrophe. Did Jane Austen write that? Or something similar? I used to read a lot, when I had eyes, my weak head trained on the page. I’m less self-regulating now, maybe. p 3
That’s not a spoiler by the way, as the back cover blurb tells us of Margaret’s death.A Country of Eternal Light
by Paul Dalgarno
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Literary Fiction
Margaret Bryce, deceased mother of twins, has been having a hard time since dying in 2014.
These days - they're not exactly days - she visits her daughter Eva in Madrid, her daughter Rachel's family in Melbourne and her estranged husband Henry in Aberdeen.
Mostly she enjoys the experience of revisiting the past, but she's tiring of the seemingly random events to which she repeatedly bears witness. There must be something more to life, surely, she thinks? And death?
Dalgarno jumps about in time a lot.. We’re offered snippets. Events. Things that obviously have some importance to Margaret. In some ways there is a ‘present’ woven into the story. An arc – circling 2014 – the time of her death. This does allow readers to be grounded, but the challenge I had with the excerpts from other times – Margaret’s childhood, the early years of her marriage, when she first became a mother, the lead up to her death and the years since – is that they were just that. Snapshots. I didn’t feel they gave me anything tangible to hold onto. I suspect Dalgarno is trying to do just that – mirror what life must be like, how confusing it might be for Margaret, (or indeed someone looking back on their life and what comes after) to revisit the past.
On one hand I can recognise that it’s a clever ploy and the lack of control there for a reason, but for logic-loving me it meant I didn’t engage as much as I would have liked with Margaret and her family.
The other challenge I had here is that Dalgarno is obviously very learned and knows a lot about literature and, well… I’m not and I don’t. Commercial fiction is my bag. So though I can recognise the beauty of his writing and elegance of his prose, it occurred to me that I was perhaps not his target audience.
He’s able to casually reference Dante, Cervantes, Pre-Christian Pythagoreans, Thales of Miletus and Barthes in a way that doesn’t necessarily sound pretentious but – though obviously prosaic to him – zoomed a little over my head.
I remember feeling the same way about Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. I finished the book and recognised it was beautifully written but knew I didn’t ‘get’ it in the way I should.
But, back to my point – which is why I’m still giving it 4 stars (which it certainly deserves – or more! – and regular readers of my reviews will know that’s a good score from me)…. [the concept] is beautifully crafted and delivered.
There’s also some fascinating insight into Margaret’s family. We spend time with her twins – Rachel and Eva, as children and adults – and we ponder their estrangement. And then there’s the kinda turbulent relationship Margaret had with her husband and the girl’s father.
Books featuring now-dead narrators aren’t new, Lovely Bones certainly started something. But Dalgarno manages to offer readers something different, something unique; a growing sense of awareness from deceased-Margaret as she’s watching another version of herself and the lives of her loved ones when she’s no longer there. It’s poignant and bittersweet and made even more so as Margaret’s sense that – despite having lived through it once – there’s a piece of her life missing.
A Country of Eternal Light by Paul Dalgarno was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.